A spokesman for a key security body in Tajikistan has wandered off the script on Afghanistan by scoffing at claims there is a build-up of Islamic State militants beyond the country's southern border.
Muhammad Ulugkhodzhayev, spokesman for the security services Main Border Troops Directorate, told Avesta website on November 5 that the rumors of fighters with the terrorist organization converging in northern Afghanistan were “far from truthful.”
Seeking to downplay another oft-aired scare scenario, Ulugkhodzhayev said there has not to date been a single attempt by militants from either Islamic State or the Taliban to make an incursion into Tajikistan.
The more thoughtful observers of the region have indeed long questioned whether the Taliban in particular would have any tactical, strategic or ideological interest in venturing into the former Soviet states along Afghanistan’s border.
Ulugkhodzhayev said that defenses on the country’s border were as normal.
Officials in Tajikistan, from the president downward, have tended to speak out of both sides of their mouths on the thorny issue of security. On one hand, they seek to cast themselves as the frontline against Islamic radicalism, thereby buying themselves diplomatic leverage with international partners, but at the same time they insist Tajikistan’s security forces are more than capable of dealing with any challenges that present themselves.
The tone evinced by Ulugkhodzhayev was pacifying compared with what was being said over the summer. (His remarks might draw some comparison with recent heated denials from Turkmenistan that there was any unrest on their border, but unfairly so. Tajikistan freely admits to the fact of Taliban’s nearby campaigns, but it is the potential of other assorted Islamist militant groups that is in question).
In mid-July, Deutsche Welle among others was reporting that the security services were on high alert amid concerns over trouble across the border.
A few months earlier, the Defense Ministry reacted to the worsening situation in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province by ordering the formation of a secondary defensive line. An official quoted by Asia-Plus news website said that additional forces and equipment had been dispatched to the southern Khatlon province to make up the numbers.
If Ulugkhodzhayev wanted to identify the source of rumors about non-Taliban extremists assembling on Tajikistan’s border, he could do worse than looking inside his own department.
In an Interfax report from August 4, the head of the border service, General-Lieutenant Radjabali Rahmonali warned of various extremist militant groups gathering their forces in northern Afghanistan.
“Acute concern is provoked by the concentration — in provinces of Afghanistan bordering our countries — of international terrorist groups, who include citizens of CIS countries, and their teaming up with local warlords and drug traffickers,” Rahmonali was quoted as saying.
Rahmonali listed the group as including the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the military wing of Jamaat Ansarullah, Al-Qaida and, of course, Islamic State.
The same Interfax reports cites the head of the border service as saying, in June, that 1,500 fighters from extremist movement were present on Tajikistan’s border.
Deutsche Welle’s July report quotes one para-governmental analyst, Khudoberdy Khaliknazar, with an even more dramatic number.
Khaliknazar, director of the Presidential Center for Strategic Studies in Dushanbe, said that the number of militants in the Afghan provinces of Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan, which account for most of the 1,344-kilometer border between the two countries, had increased tenfold to reach 8,000 in the space of the past year. And Islamic State are among those fighters, said Khaliknazar.
“IS is working actively, sending large numbers of emissaries from Iraq. It is known that in 2015 they allocated $70 million for the creation of cells across all of Afghanistan,” he said.
Since Tajikistan’s officialdom has a demonstrably malleable relationship with reality, however, determining the accuracy of their public statements is more often than not best decided by flipping a coin.
Sounding alarms about extremists at the gate is often coupled with appeals for material security assistance.
In Rahmonali’s case, he expresses hopes that the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization might come to the rescue.
Ahead of a CSTO summit held in mid-September, Russian newspaper Kommersant cited an unnamed official with the military alliance as saying bloc members were considering deploying troops outside the organization’s borders to take part in an international coalition operating under the auspices of the United Nations.
More recent scuttlebutt has suggested that Russia wants, or would be willing, to once again establish its control over the Tajik-Afghan border. Russian border troops patrolled that border until 2005 and speculation has rumbled ever since that Moscow would seek to have them returned. Dushanbe has always regarded the suggestion coolly, however.
And Russia has its military well ensconced in Tajikistan anyhow, even beyond its roughly 6,000-man 201st Motorized Rifle Division, based in three facilities around the country.
As Deutsche Welle reported recently, around 200 Russian military advisers have been active in Dushanbe since 2005.
What Tajikistan really wants and needs is more training and free equipment.
The United States has obliged on that front and distinctively American-looking military vehicles can occasionally be seen along the Pyanj River, which forms much of the physical frontier with Afghanistan.
Russia is — on paper — proposing to be even more generous than Washington has been.
Kommersant reported in April, again in an anonymously sourced and vaguely formulated piece, that Moscow would in the “coming years” give Tajikistan 70 billion rubles (around $1.2 billion) of military-technical assistance. That mooted figure was a follow-up to a 2014 agreement for Russia to assist Tajikistan in modernizing its armed forces.
Russia’s economy has been heading south since those times, so grand promises that may never have been much more than words could quickly vaporize, although defense has proven the one area in which Moscow is not prepared to make cutbacks, no matter how bad the times.
Still, it has become evident from the years of Russian horse-trading with Tajikistan that raising the specter of instability, by both sides, has often proven to be little more than a negotiating gambit. Islamic State is only the latest in a series of would-be perils, but indisputable evidence of the genuine danger it or any other similar groups pose to Tajikistan and ex-Soviet neighbors has been extremely difficult to come by.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.